“Russian authorities have launched their first criminal case against a rights activist for failing to comply with Moscow`s controversial "foreign agent" law”, an activist told AFP on Tuesday.
Valentina Cherevatenko, who runs two women`s rights NGOs in the southern Rostov region, could face up to two years in prison if she is charged under legislation which critics say aims to crack down on civil society.
The 2012 law -- introduced after mass protests against President Vladimir Putin`s return for a third term -- allows the authorities to brand groups that receive funding from abroad and engage in vaguely-defined political activity as "foreign agents", a term reminiscent of the Soviet-era repression of dissidents.
Many organisations have been fined for violating the legislation, but this latest case marks the first time the head of an NGO could face criminal charges under the law.
Cherevatenko said, “She stands accused of failing to register one of her organisations, Women of the Don Foundation for Civil Society Development, as a foreign agent with the authorities.”
"We did not register with authorities because our organisation did not and doesn`t have the intention of receiving foreign funding and engaging in political activities," Cherevatenko said.
Cherevatenko said, “The organisation`s offices had on Friday been searched by investigators, police and members of the security services, who seized documents and computers.”
Lawyer Ildar Shafiyev told AFP, “He was preparing an appeal against the case and doubted his client would face the maximum two-year sentence.”
International organisations have slammed the legislation and Human Rights Watch called on authorities to "immediately dismiss the case against Cherevatenko and repeal the law that threatens the work of human rights groups in Russia."
Critics say the law hinders the work of human rights activists and smothers civil society while its proponents say it is meant to stop Western plots to destabilise the country.
More than 130 NGOs, ranging from leading human rights groups to small regional organisations, have been placed on the justice ministry list of "foreign agents".
The legislation has seen some organisations reject much-needed funding from abroad, while others have closed down.
Those branded "foreign agents" are required to submit documents every three months outlining details of their funding.
They are also obliged to carry the "foreign agent" tag on materials they publish, among a number of other requirements.